Clear Cut Logging Road, Port Renfrew

25 Years after the War in the Woods: Why B.C.’s forests are still in crisis

With increasingly privatized forests and a dangerous reliance on industry paid professionals, B.C. is facing a crash in harvest volumes, the closure of mills and the loss of old-growth forests

When 12,000 people showed up on the remote coast of Vancouver Island in the summer of 1993 for the Clayoquot Sound blockades, history was in the making.

It was one of the largest acts of mass civil disobedience in Canadian history, with almost 1,000 people arrested in what would become known as the War in the Woods. The arrests of youth and elders were seen on television screens and in newspapers around the world.

“We needed to put Clayoquot Sound on the map,” recalls Valerie Langer, who was a young literacy teacher at the time. Langer, who had travelled to Vancouver Island on a tree-planting contract, would become one of the core organizers of the Clayoquot Sound blockades and helped found the group that later became ForestEthics, now Stand.earth.

“Nobody could pronounce the word Clayoquot, let alone knew that it was an area of temperate rainforest. Nobody knew there were rainforests in Canada, rainforests were a tropical thing.”

The Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations — who had stewarded the natural abundance of Clayoquot Sound since at least the last ice age — were opposed to the industrial-scale forestry being practiced and the complete lack of consultation around land-use planning in their territories.

Langer set about strategizing with her allies in the Friends of Clayoquot Sound on how to support the Nuu-chah-nulth efforts to protect these intact old-growth watersheds from logging by timber giant Macmillan-Bloedel.

“We wanted to gain power with the company,” Langer says. “Rather than standing literally in the wilderness shouting about how wrong they were, we were going to go where their customers were.”

Within the next two years, Macmillan-Bloedel had lost at least $200 million in pulp, paper and wood contracts, Langer says.

This forced the company and the government to the table.

In 1993 protesters blocked an access road, preventing MacMillan Bloedel from continuing its Clayoquot Sound logging operations. Police arrived to read a court injunction, demanding the road be cleared. The order was summarily ignored by protesters. Photos: Ademoor

Macmillan-Bloedel gradually extricated itself from Clayoquot Sound and turned over control of the tree farm licence to the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations.

It was a big victory. And after sweeping changes to B.C. forest policy that came in its wake, a lot of people thought this issue had been dealt with. But 25 years later, B.C. forests are in crisis.

The province is currently facing a crash in harvest volumes, the closure of mills and widespread layoffs, not to mention the continued loss of old-growth forests.

Old-growth forests on the brink

Longtime environmental activist and Order of Canada recipient Vicky Husband talks about Vancouver Island’s ancient temperate rainforests with deep reverence and great sadness.

“You know, I’ve travelled the whole world,” she says. “We have some of the rarest forests on Earth — and we’re throwing them away.”

Husband has been fighting for ancient forests on the West Coast for more than 40 years. She has been on the front lines of the epic fights for Clayoquot Sound, Gwaii Haanas and many other historic wins for the ancient forest movement.

“We got some really important watersheds, with great battles,” she recalls. “But it was just not nearly enough.”

On Vancouver Island, the most productive old-growth forests in the valley-bottoms, those most cherished by environmentalists for their ecological, carbon and cultural values — and prized by the timber industry for their timber value — have reached crisis levels.

A clearcut on Vancouver Island, B.C., shows Big Lonely Doug exposed, centre left. Big Lonely Doug is the second-largest douglas fir in Canada. Photo: TJ Watt

According to Sierra Club BC, Vancouver Island has lost 30 per cent of its original forests over the past 25 years, leaving less than seven per cent of the island’s most productive and endangered old growth. On average, nearly 9,000 hectares of old growth were logged annually from 2011 to 2015. And old-growth logging is speeding up. In 2016, that annual amount jumped to nearly 11,000 hectares, the equivalent of 26 Stanley Parks.

Critics, policy analysts and environmentalists all agree that to understand the escalating loss of old growth, as well as the overall decline of forest health and industry employment, one must look back to how B.C.’s public forests became virtually privatized.

An aerial view of Flores Island in Clayoquot Sound. Photo: TJ Watt

The privatization of B.C.’s forests

After the Clayoquot Sound protests, the NDP government of the day set aside dozens of intact valleys and set about reforming forestry across the province. It introduced the Forest Practices Code in 1994, which had more stringent forestry regulations than ever before, and created the Forest Practices Board, an independent oversight body with real teeth for those who broke the law.

But in 2003, the BC Liberals came to power with a sizable majority, ushering in the dark years for B.C.’s forests. As environmental groups turned their focus to other issues, such as climate change, the Liberal government set about deregulating the forest industry.

Ken Wu of the Ancient Forest Alliance — who was 19 during the summer of 1993 and has not stopped fighting for old-growth forests since — says that while the ’90s saw significant progress in forestry, “under the BC Liberals it became a full-scale attempt at rollback.”

In 2004, the Forest Practices Code was replaced with a watered down Forest and Range Practices Act; the Forest Practices Board, the independent watchdog for the industry, was de-fanged; and industry oversight was outsourced from the public service to professionals paid by industry (a system known as “professional reliance,” which is currently under review).

Herb Hammond, a forest ecologist and veteran eco-forester from the Slocan Valley, sees it this way: “Professional reliance, coupled with getting rid of the forest service and legislated standards for forestry, simply privatized the forest.”

One of the most significant changes to forest legislation under the Liberals was the removal of appurtenancy — the longstanding requirement that to log public timber, companies had to operate local mills.

According to Arnie Bercov of the Public and Private Workers Union (formerly the Pulp and Paper Workers Union), which represents mill-workers and value-added producers, the elimination of appurtenancy, “was a complete betrayal of our social contract.”

Corporate consolidation of public forests

Deregulation was compounded by the vast majority of timber licences being consolidated into the hands of very few companies, which freely traded tenures to create regional monopolies.

The result is that the majority of public timber goes to large, centralized mega-mills cranking out cheap commodity lumber, while independent wood producers struggle to access the right logs for their mills.

According to the Interior Lumber Manufacturers Association, “Independents and specialty manufacturers will have increasing difficulties accessing enough of the right logs to remain competitive, so these sectors will continue to shrink.”  

From 2000 to 2016, 26 sawmills shut their doors in the Interior. On the coast, 18 mills closed up shop — a combined loss of 44 sawmills across the province.

The export of unprocessed logs from the coast also doubled under the BC Liberals, from less than 3 million cubic metres in 2001 to more than 6 million cubic metres in 2016. At the same time, employment in the forest industry declined by 32,000 jobs.

Old-growth cedar logs. Photo: TJ Watt

Truck Loggers Association executive director David Elstone refutes that there is any causal link between plummeting employment and skyrocketing log exports, attributing the loss of forestry jobs to “technological innovation” and “constant erosion of the working forest.”

By “constant erosion of the working forest,” Elstone is referring to areas that have been taken off the menu for timber companies to log, due to environmental protections, beetles or wildfire.

The technological innovations Elstone is talking about are technologies such as LIDAR, a surveying method which allows industry to plan operations and assess timber supply with far less boots on the ground. He is also talking about feller-bunchers, nightmarish machines that have made it possible for two people to take down an entire forest in a matter of days.

But even Elstone — who generally defends the status quo of volume-based industrial forestry — agrees with the idea that the forest industry has become overly consolidated: “We feel there is too much of the timber tenure in too few hands,” he says.

Mountain pine beetle and the interior timber supply crisis

The ancient forests of the coast are not the only forests that environmentalists and foresters are concerned about. B.C.’s interior forests have been ravaged by catastrophic beetle outbreaks, wildfires and unsustainable “salvage” operations by industry.

Now interior B.C. is facing a midterm timber supply crisis and a sharp reduction in Annual Allowable Cut. This may not come as a surprise as the mountain pine beetle wiped out more than 50 per cent of the merchantable pine forests across the province.

But according to ecologist and eco-forester Hammond, the pine beetle was far from being a natural disaster. “We created that problem,” he says.

First, we created global warming, “which removed the biggest control factor for the mountain pine beetle — cold winters,” Hammond says.

Second, we were so successful in suppressing forest fires that we stockpiled vast stands of mature pine, thus creating a buffet for beetles.

Third, we logged old-growth forests. Old growth scattered about the Interior once provided habitat for birds and other predators of the beetle, helping to regulate populations. With most of those forests now gone, beetles face less predation.

And fourth, “clear-cutting large areas dried out the landscape, stressed the ecosystems, and set forests up for successful attacks by the mountain pine beetle,” Hammond says.

But it didn’t stop there. With so much standing dead wood and a limited time frame in which to cash it in, the B.C. government increased the Annual Allowable Cut to vastly unsustainable levels and allowed the industry to recover what value they could from the dead pine.

“What the timber industry saw here,” Hammond says, “was a short-term gold mine to salvage pine.” He explains that if a stand contained 30 per cent pine, they were able to log the entire stand — including high value non-pine species — at a deep discount.

The result was years of over-harvesting, way beyond any notion of a sustainable yield, under the guise of a so-called salvage operation for dead pine, in which vast quantities of perfectly healthy non-pine were also being logged out of the landscape.

Potential for a breakthrough in old growth protection

Despite this bleak picture, there is actually some hope amongst environmentalists and some more ecologically minded foresters about the moment in which we now find ourselves, with the NDP once again in power.

While Wu was disappointed by the NDP’s approval of the Site C dam, he remains hopeful: “This is the first social democratic government supported by Greens in North American history, so right now we have the greatest potential for a breakthrough in the protection of old growth.”

While the NDP have thus far continued with the status quo forest policies of the previous government, their platform states: “In partnership with First Nations and communities, we will modernize land-use planning to effectively and sustainably manage B.C.’s ecosystems, rivers, lakes, watersheds, forests and old growth, while accounting for cumulative effects. We will take an evidence-based scientific approach and use the ecosystem-based management of the Great Bear Rainforest as a model.”

Premier John Horgan also dropped a few hints in his throne speech and in the following press scrum that changes are coming to B.C. forest policy.

B.C. Premier John Horgan visits Structurlam, in Penticton B.C. Photo: B.C. Government via Flickr

“The government will revitalize the forest industry’s social contract with British Columbians,” Horgan said. He also promised to, “make sure that every log that is taken from a public forest, the benefit is maximized to the people in the community.”

When pressed by the Vancouver Sun on whether he was proposing further restrictions on log exports and bringing back appurtenancy (that old requirement to log public timber near the area where it was harvested), Horgan confirmed that he was.

Bercov of the Public and Private Workers Union is encouraged by the prospect of reinstating appurtenancy, but is not satisfied with words.

“We expect action,” he says. “They campaigned on bringing forestry back to the communities and the only way they’re going to do that is through appurtenancy.”

‘The real problem is corporate control of public forests’

But Hammond says that appurtenancy does not get to the heart of the matter: “If you just add appurtenancy to the existing tenure system, you’re not dealing with the real problem. The real problem is corporate control of public forests.”

Bercov agrees that banning log exports or reinstating appurtenancy will not save the industry.

“The solution, quite honestly, is we have to build more mills,” Bercov says. “And the only way we are going to attract investment is to work with First Nations.”

Becov continues, “I would like to see every single log that’s cut here manufactured here, not because it’s mandated, but because we create the conditions. We create opportunities for First Nations to control their own destiny.”

“And that means real co-management, shared jurisdiction and decision-making authority,” Hammond says. “Then I think we will see some really good Indigenous models.”

Coastal temperate rainforest. Photo: TJ Watt

The Great Bear Rainforest agreements

When Langer looks back on the Clayoquot Sound campaign, she sees it this way: “It wasn’t an event. It was a process, in which First Nations increasingly gained decision-making authority over what was going to happen to the forests in their territories.”

If we pull on the thread from Clayoquot Sound to today it leads directly to the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements, a set of science-based rules for logging in the central and north coast forests established in 2016 and negotiated over a decade.

Langer was at the table for those tense and often fraught negotiations, which she describes as, “probably the most comprehensive forestry and human well-being framework that exists in the world. It has the most stringent commercial forestry laws in North America.”

The agreement protected 85 per cent of the Great Bear Rainforest from any kind of resource extraction, placed strict ecosystem-based forestry regulations on the logging that happens in the remaining 15 per cent and put First Nations into a co-management role with the B.C. government.

It also provided financing for First Nations to be able to seed economic development initiatives, such as clean energy projects, tourism and other alternatives to old-growth logging.

While some more strident environmentalists see the Great Bear agreement as less than ideal, with problematic loopholes, proponents argue that more intact forest was protected under this agreement than in any other environmental deal in history — and was done in a way that put First Nations in a leadership role.

While organizations like the Truck Loggers Association may decry the agreement as the “further erosion of the working forest,” the rest of B.C. does not come close to meeting the rigorous standards of ecosystem-based management set out in the Great Bear Rainforest.

Decolonizing forestry in B.C.

“I’m just going to say it: we have a colonial mentality in this province,” Adam Olsen, Green MLA from Saanich North and the Islands, told DeSmog Canada on the phone. Olsen,  a member of the Tsartlip First Nation, said, “It’s the same as it was 200 years ago.”

“We need to start being informed by my Saanich elders,” Olsen said. “So ecosystem-based management for me is about understanding what our place is in all this.”

Hammond has studied ecosystem-based conservation planning for decades and has worked with communities and First Nations across B.C. on managing their local forestlands.

For him, the current model of industrial logging that prioritizes timber value above all else is backwards.

“Protecting and restoring ecological integrity of forests needs to be the focus of forestry, not timber extraction,” Hammond says. “In the absence of that, we are only contributing to our own demise.”

Klanawa Valley on Vancouver Island. Photo: TJ Watt

This means prioritizing ecosystem services such as hydrology, biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Timber harvesting can still happen under this model, but in a much smaller and more strategic way than it is today.

Indigenous-led, ecosystem-based approaches to conservation planning are gaining ground across the province, which leads us right back to Clayoquot Sound.

The Ahousaht First Nation — one of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nations in Clayoquot Sound — recently revealed its new land-use vision, in which 80 per cent of the old-growth in Ahousaht territory will be off limits to logging, while tourism, fishing, selective forestry, ecology and cultural use will be prioritized on the remaining land-base.

Most importantly, the Ahousaht have asserted their right to manage all aspects of their unceded lands, waters, resources and economy for the benefit of their people and ecosystems. And the other nations in Clayoquot Sound are not far behind in their own land-use planning processes.

“The forest industry is not just about cutting trees anymore,” Bercov says. “It’s about climate change, it’s about First Nations rights and title, it’s about ecosystems.”

“That means a significant portion of the forest land base that might have commercially valuable timber on will not be logged,” Hammond says. “It’s going to be for water, for biodiversity.”

“We have to start doing more with less,” Bercov says. “We have to start getting maximum value out of the trees that we cut. We’re not doing that.”

Daniel J. Pierce is a filmmaker and journalist based in Vancouver. His work explores the intersections between environmental, economic and…

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